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Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

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Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby M.D.M. » Sat Jul 09, 2016 7:51 am

I have recently graduated from my PhD in the broad field of molecular neuroscience, and I have realised a few things about myself:
- I am not sure I want to be a PI, due to my lukewarm experience with my thesis advisor, and the constant hunt for funding that eats away research time in such positions
- I still like wet lab work
- I love teaching, and I can see myself as a lecturer, and student advisor/trainer

Now, I have just been offered two positions, one as a part-time assistant lecturer in life sciences, and one as a full-time postdoc in my previous research field. Both are university/college institutions located in Europe, in lovely cities, and seem fabulous places to work in.
The assistant lecturer role is a 1 year contact, renewable for 2 years, and of course lowly paid. However, there is a moderate chance that, in the next 1-2 years, new lecturer positions (permanent) will be available in the institution offering me the job. As a lecturer I would not be involved in bench research at all.
The postdoc position is within a promising lab with an ambitious project; funding is secured for the 1st year of postdoc, in which you apply for grants (there's at least three funding opportunities as of now). If grants cannot be obtained straight away and my PI 'likes' me, there are some temporary financial backup plans. Ideally, if I fit well in the lab my PI would like to renew my contract for at least 3 years. Work includes supervising and training students, might involve lecturing in the future. Pay is obviously much better than an assistant lecturer's salary.

Now, since I am unsure the classic PI/professor role suits me, and keeping in mind how small the chances to get a tenured position are these days, I am wondering if it would be a good idea to jump into a postdoc. On the other hand, the assistant lecturer job sounds nice but very risky: if things don't work out, I will be out of the institution in max 2 years, and at that point I think it would be very hard to consider going back to the bench. Pure science lecturer positions at university level seem incredibly scarce, too.

Considering the situation, my personal goals and inclinations, and the current job market, what position would you advise to go for?
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Re: Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby Craig B. » Mon Jul 11, 2016 12:42 pm

I can't speak with any authority on the job market in Europe, but in the US "permanent" teaching positions are increasingly competitive. Limited teaching experience, such as being a teaching assistant for a few classes during graduate school, often isn't sufficient. Many spend time as adjunct or visiting faculty or complete a teaching postdoc before securing a coveted tenure-track or other long term position.

The assistant lecturer position you've been offered seems like it'd be an option to get additional experience towards becoming a professional educator. You're right to be aware of the risks--lower compensation, challenges going back to the bench if it doesn't work out. The traditional postdoc may keep more doors open for you, especially if you can get the support of your PI to lecture and gain additional teaching experience.

Whichever choice you make, prioritize finding your preferred career track and make every effort to receive the additional training or experience you need to transition to the next stage.
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Re: Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby Steven Z. » Tue Jul 12, 2016 8:26 am

If I was interested in teaching I would probably go more for high school than these poor paying unstable contract lecturer positions. They are ticket to poverty.

As for bench science, that will be tough with a PhD. Companies by and large do not hire PhD's for bench science positions. We had a discussion on this and companies have admitted that for bench science positions they toss the resumes of PhD's as being overqualified, too expensive, a flight risk and we had a heated argument over the ethics and efficacy of omitting the PhD from your resume.

I'm just not sure you are going to accomplish much for your career joining the post-doc purgatory especially if you don't aspire to be a PI.
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Re: Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby Andrew » Tue Jul 12, 2016 12:16 pm

Every thing you do in your career opens some doors for you while closing others. This includes taking postdocs, getting an MBA or a Ph.D., or taking a job. Just make sure your decisions open the right doors and only close ones you no longer care to go through.

If you do not want to be a PI, do not take a postdoc. This position will make it harder for you to get teaching or industrial bench positions and will not help you do anything you say you want to do. If you want to teach, take a teaching position. It can only help you get other teaching positions regardless of how it pans out.

If you want to be on the bench, go get a job on the bench. Do not take a teaching or postdoc position doing something else.

I continue to be surprised by how few people look at their career choices this way.
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Re: Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby Yandorio » Tue Jul 12, 2016 10:47 pm

If I was interested in teaching I would probably go more for high school than these poor paying unstable contract lecturer positions. They are ticket to poverty.

I met a middle school teacher the other day who makes a very nice salary and gets the summer off. When I go to Transparent California I see my friends who teach high school are making much more than I ever made teaching college or Med School overseas and can't (or don't) get fired unless they commit a crime or something serious. It's amazing how much better off they seem to be than PhD adjunct professors or visiting professors with respect to job security and even salary.
They really should do something about this paradox, it's quite sad.
But if the OP can get tenure somehow, more power to him. It just seems like a pipe dream nowadays. Best case scenario is to make $$ on a cool patent and blow off both teaching AND research a la Mullis or Gates.
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Re: Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby RSD » Tue Jul 19, 2016 11:38 am

I have to strongly disagree with the opinion that PhD scientists cannot get bench positions. Any good biotech or Pharma company relies on PhD level scientists to drive projects forward at the bench. A good RA/technician can do a ton of work, but there is no substitute for the experience and training brought by a PhD. I've worked at two different companies in different aspects of the biotech industry, and both hired PhD bench scientists.
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Re: Life decisions after a PhD: teaching or research?

Postby Dave Jensen » Tue Jul 19, 2016 12:28 pm

RSD wrote:I have to strongly disagree with the opinion that PhD scientists cannot get bench positions. Any good biotech or Pharma company relies on PhD level scientists to drive projects forward at the bench. A good RA/technician can do a ton of work, but there is no substitute for the experience and training brought by a PhD. I've worked at two different companies in different aspects of the biotech industry, and both hired PhD bench scientists.


Totally agree!
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